Day 745: The Buried Giant

Cover for The Buried GiantI thought from what I read about The Buried Giant that it was a historical novel set in the days after the Romans left Britain. But it is really a fable or a fantasy novel or both.

Axl and his wife Beatrice are an old British couple who decide to go on a journey. They have recently become aware that their memories of the past are poor, as are everyone’s, but they vaguely remember they have a son. Years ago, their son moved to another village, and Beatrice has been wanting to visit him. Finally, they decide to go.

Beatrice has difficulty remembering the way to their first stop, a Saxon village she has visited before, but they find it by evening. The village is disturbed and possibly dangerous for the visiting Britons. A boy was taken by an ogre, but a strange warrior has brought him back. The villagers have seen a bite on the boy and want to kill him. But the warrior saves the boy, named Edwin. Once Axl and Beatrice leave the village the next day, they find themselves traveling with Edwin and the warrior Wistan.

This novel features ogres, pixies, treacherous monks, a British lord on the lookout for the Saxon warrior, an Arthurian knight, and finally a dragon whose breath has made everyone forget the past. It is about reconciliation, memory, aging, and death. As a fable, it doesn’t really characterize its protagonists; they are more like symbols. As such I wasn’t really compelled by the story.

In addition, a history class I have been taking recently indicates that it is unlikely any Britons would have been mixing freely with Saxons at this time. By the time the Anglos and Saxons began settling England in earnest, all the Britons had been pushed off to far western England and Cornwall. Although this novel does not really mention which part of England they are in, I understand that Britons did not tend to mix with the Angles and Saxons.

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Day 684: Ella Minnow Pea

Cover for Ella Minnow PeaEven though I enjoyed Mark Dunn’s unusual novel Under the Harrow, I avoided Ella Minnow Pea for some time because it sounded too gimmicky. When I finally read it, I found it mildly entertaining, but yes gimmicky, although I can see why it would amuse those with a different sense of humor than mine.

Ella Minnow Pea is a 17-year-old girl living on a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina that is not part of the United States. This island, called Nollop, is named after Nevin Nollop, the supposed author of “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” Nollop is the island’s most eminent native son, and there is a cenotaph containing the sentence in the middle of Nollopton.

This epistolary novel opens with a letter from Ella to her cousin Tassie in Nollopville, in which she relates that the letter z fell off the cenotaph. Soon, the island council announces that the spirit of Nollop has used this way to send the message that the letter z must be removed from all island correspondence and speech. Violation of this statute is punished severely with a third occurrence resulting in banishment. The libraries are soon closed, because no books exist without the letter z. A rebellious youth is banished almost immediately. Conveniently, the procedures for running the government are destroyed, including those for recalling the council, because they contain the banned letter. People make mistakes and are punished or banished. The radio station eventually shuts down and the newspaper struggles, because it is too difficult to avoid the letter.

Then another letter falls, then another.

It is mildly amusing to see how the characters get around the problem of the disappearing letters in their correspondence. Of course, the novel is a statement about tyranny and freedom of expression.

Dunn’s latest novel Ibid, a novel written entirely in footnotes, has good reviews for its originality. Another gimmick, and I’m not sure I’ll try it. Dunn’s interests seem to lie in inventing isolated imaginary places where over-elaborate speech is common, along with made-up words, and where the government can’t be trusted.

Have you read Ibid? What did you think of it?

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Day 614: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Cover for The Bridge of San Luis ReyThe Bridge of San Luis Rey is a moral fable that explores whether there is a purpose in life beyond that of a person’s own will. This theme is not one that interests me, nor do I usually enjoy fables, but I did enjoy Wilder’s rich characterizations in this short novel.

The novel begins in 1714 in Peru, when the bridge of San Luis Rey collapses, killing five people. A monk, Brother Juniper, believes that this event may be his opportunity for scientific proof of the will of God. So, for six years he collects information about the lives of each victim.

What follows is a chapter about each of the lives of the victims, in all their humanness and contradictions. The Marquesa de Montemayor is an ugly, rich old woman who is despised by many for her eccentricity. She obsessively loves her daughter, who has moved to Spain to get away from her, and she writes her rambling but marvelous letters that only her son-in-law reads. With her dies her young maid Pepita.

Esteban is a twin whose brother Manuel recently died. Esteban and Manuel were inseparable until Manuel fell in love with the actress Perichole, who used him to write her love letters. Ever since Manuel’s death, Esteban has been inconsolable.

Uncle Pio was a wanderer who eventually settled down to mentor Perichole, whom he raised from a young barroom singer to become a great actress. But Perichole begins to have ambitions beyond the theatre and eventually throws off Uncle Pio. Uncle Pio has devoted himself only to her, though, and promises to educate her son Jaime.

This novel is beautifully written and touching in its acceptance of the foibles of humanity.


Day 530: Literary Wives! The Crane Wife

Cover for The Crane WifeToday is another Literary Wives review, where the wives explore the depiction of wives in contemporary fiction. Please be sure to check out the reviews of all the Literary Wives.

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George is awakened in the middle of the night by a strange cry. When he looks out the window, he is astonished to see a wounded crane in his garden. He removes an arrow from the crane’s wing, and the crane flies away.

The next day he is doodling at work when he gets the urge to cut up an old book. He makes a paper crane. When a woman named Kumiko arrives at the shop, she takes away his crane and unites it with a tile of feathers she has made, creating a wonderful sculpture.

Women have always left George, deeming him to be too nice. Kumiko, though, quickly becomes his lover and promises to be his wife.

George’s daughter Amanda is feeling lonely. Because of her anger and acerbic wit, she has never kept her friends. It is beginning to look like her friendship with coworkers Rachel and Mei is going south. She loves her ex-husband Henri, but her anger drove him away. Only her four-year-old son JP and her father seem to stay.

The stories of these characters are periodically interrupted by a fable about the love/hate relationship between a goddess and a volcano. Eventually, these two threads intersect, overlaying the everyday story with mythic and magical overtones.

I was much more interested in the everyday story of George, Amanda, and Kumiko than I was in the mythic elements, which at times seemed to be trying too hard to be profound. The everyday story was touching and sometimes funny, the character Mehmet being particularly amusing.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife? In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

There are two wives in the story. One is Amanda, who loves Henri. But her self-hatred is so strong that she feels something must be wrong with Henri for him to love her back. So, she fights with him until he leaves her. Eventually, she has to settle for being his friend.

Although she and George never actually marry, the other wife is Kumiko, the crane wife. She is a self-sacrificing figure. To stay with George and make their works of art, she tears the feathers from her own body. In her mythic self, though, she offers forgiveness at a terrible price, by ripping out a person’s heart and blinding him, then turning him to stone.

Is Ness saying that we’re only forgiven if we are blind, heartless, and turned to stone? Or are we only free of pain in that condition? Ness’ vision of love, that it is greedy, angry, or self-sacrificing, is a strange one. The goddess’s love is harrowing while Kumiko’s makes her give up everything. All of these ideas seem at once confused and simplistic. Literary Wives logo

I think Ness is saying more about love than about being a wife—that true love is more self-denying than greedy. George becomes obsessed with learning everything he can about Kumiko instead of accepting what she can give—and that leads to unhappiness.

But my question is, is either view of love a true one? Is it healthy or even right to be so self-denying that you literally mutilate yourself for love?

Day 411: Bellman & Black

Cover for Bellman & BlackWhen I heard that another book by Diane Setterfield was coming out, I was really excited, having enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale immensely. Although the previous novel was about a teller of fables, I enjoyed other aspects of the novel more than the fables themselves. Bellman & Black is actually an extended fable with a vaguely 19th century setting rather than a more traditional novel, and as such, I did not enjoy it as much.

William Bellman is a capable boy, liked by all, with a golden future. But one day when he is fooling around with his friends, he takes what seems to be an impossible shot with his slingshot and kills a rook without actually intending to. The boys go to bury the rook but end up desecrating it instead. They have no idea how these actions will affect their futures.

Bellman goes on to work at his uncle’s mill, where he proves himself more than capable and earns his uncle’s trust. He begins a career that eventually brings him great wealth, and his attention to the details of his enterprises is phenomenal. In his personal life, however, he is not so lucky, as he loses most of those closest to him to death. After a particularly wrenching loss, he is so grief-stricken that he can barely function, and at that point he makes a bargain with a Mr. Black, the details of which he can’t quite remember.

As I mentioned before, the story is told as an extended fable, in the style of a folk tale. Most of the characters are emblematic of a single characteristic rather than fully developed. Even Bellman, in his single-mindedness, seems one-dimensional. The writing is gorgeous and replete with detail, the setting atmospheric. It is easy to imagine the scenes Setterfield describes, but her characters remain enigmas.

http://www.netgalley.comPeriodically, a chapter ends with a few paragraphs about rooks, their appearance, habits, mythology. When we are told that the rooks in the tree by Bellman’s house are descended from the rooks in Norse mythology named Thought and Memory, this information is vital for understanding the story.

Even at the end of the novel, I did not feel I fully understood everything about the bargain Bellman made. In any case, beautifully written as the novel is, I sometimes found my attention wandering.

Day 369: The Alchemist

Cover for The AlchemistIn my opinion, a fable for adults requires something striking to hold the attention. Telling the story as one would to a child is not going to cut it. It must be wittily written or beautifully illustrated or have some other compelling characteristic.

I have to admit I did not finish this fable about a Spanish shepherd boy who is told to travel to Egypt to find his “personal legend.” I found it heavy handed in approach and did not find anything special about the way the story was told to make it outstanding. I found the fairy tale writing style irritating.

I know this book has been very popular, but it is not the book for me. I guess I am reminded of the popularity years ago of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, another book I thought was wildly overrated. I could tell where The Alchemist was going within 50 pages, and I didn’t want to go with it.